Nutritional Supplements—Hype vs. Logic

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Does your feed room shelf look like a well-stocked pharmacy? Are some of your horses consuming various nutritional supplements because of some perceived need or promised benefit? Many of us are looking for a competitive edge or a quick fix from the ever-growing myriad of available horse supplements and if you look hard enough, you can find a supplement that claims to help most any equine malady.

I will be the first to admit that nutrition can influence any cell in the body. I also admit there are many essential nutrients that can assist with disease prevention, recovery and optimal performance. In addition, I have recommended certain supplements and there are many respected high-quality products available. However, I have observed many “supplemented” horses that would be better served with more focus on the basic staples of their diet.

Could your horse benefit from better hay and an improved grain ration rather than feeding the latest supplements? Could you actually save money by investing the cost of supplements into better hay and grain? It may be worthwhile for you to sit down with a calculator and do some basic math.

Hay and grain prices vary by region and season, but calculating the cost per head per day will universally apply. Before you do this, you must know the exact weight of hay and grain being fed per day and the average weight of a bale of your hay. For example, let’s assume a horse is consuming eight pounds of grain and 15 pounds of hay per day. We will also assume your grain cost is $7 per 50 pounds and the hay is $3.50 per 50-pound bale. Some simple math shows that your grain cost is 14 cents/pound ($1.20 per day) and your hay cost is 7 cents/pound ($1.05 per day).

How much are your supplements costing you per day? This too will vary by region and product. But have you done the math? I have seen horses consuming more than $2 per day in various supplements of questionable benefit. Would investing this cost in a better-fortified grain ration or higher-quality hay be more logical and a better value?

If you improve your hay and grain quality, caloric density usually increases, so you will be feeding fewer pounds per day. Let us take 35 cents from our supplement budget and put it into an improved grain concentrate. At $1.55 per day ($1.20 + .35) and a continued feeding rate of 8 pounds per day, you could purchase grain at $9.70 per 50 pounds. We will invest the remaining 20 cents per day from the supplement budget into higher quality hay. At $1.25 per day ($1.05 + .20) you could purchase hay at just over $4.15 per 50-pound bale.

If you stop the nutritional supplement altogether what will you be giving up? This answer can get twisted and confusing. The only accurate way to determine this is to invest in a computer analysis of everything you are feeding your horse. Many nutritionists or feed companies can provide this service and it can be a worthwhile exercise.

However, you can perform some simple critical thinking on your own. Pick one or two nutrients that your supplement is providing. For example, look at the total units of Vitamin E or copper that your supplement is providing per day. Then look at your existing grain concentrate and an alternative or improved grain concentrate. When you compare on a per-day basis, most improved grain concentrates offer more nutrients because you are feeding more volume. Many supplements are fed at 1 to 2 ounces per day while you’re feeding 5 to 10 pounds of feed per day.

Lastly, beware of supplement window dressing. Many nutritional supplements will provide a long list of “guaranteed nutrients.” However, when critically analyzed at the guaranteed value and recommended feeding rate, they offer little of the total daily requirements. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

“Many of us are looking for a competitive edge or a quick fix...”

If you’re confused, seek help and be willing to pay for a thorough consultation. Ask your veterinarian or nutritionist to sit down with you to evaluate your total feeding program. Paying for a critical nutritional analysis may save you a lot in a short period of time. But do your homework before you meet with a specialist. You need to list all grain, hay and supplement costs on a unit basis (cost per pound or ounce). Also remember to weigh the hay and grain being fed on a per-day basis. You will also need all the nutrient guarantees for the supplements, hay and grain you are feeding. A hay or forage analysis prior to this meeting is a good starting point. Most feed companies will provide a nutrient rundown on their feeds beyond what is guaranteed on the tag. If they won’t provide you a complete nutrient rundown, it will be difficult to accurately make a comparison on nutrients not listed on the tag.

I am not opposed to supplements, but I am opposed to wasting money and exaggerated marketing claims. Investing in a higher-quality hay and grain may make the best economic and nutritional sense. You won’t know until you do the math and ask some critical questions. A few hours crunching the numbers might open your eyes.

A Time and a Place for Supplements

When are nutritional supplements helpful? The most likely scenarios where nutritional supplements can be beneficial are:

  1. Convalescing animals that need to improve tissue repair or the immune system through higher nutrient supplementation.
  2. Growing horses with developmental orthopedic risk where minimizing growth but optimizing essential nutrients for proper bone and cartilage development is important.
  3. Overweight horses that need to cut back on caloric intake but ensure essential nutrients.
  4. Pastured broodmares and growing horses to make sure that nutrient gaps in forages are filled.
  5. Broodmares with poor reproductive histories.